UPDATE (4 p.m. ET): Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles is reporting that the Dodgers and Mattingly have agreed to a contract extension. Shelburne says the deal will keep him as Dodgers manager for the next three seasons. With Mattingly already under contract for the 2014 season, that means he received a two-year extension. No word yet on the financial terms of the deal.
Don Mattingly wants the Dodgers to like him. At least from a contractual standpoint.
It now looks as if the team will give its manager some affirmation in the form of a contract extension. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the Dodgers and Mattingly were making progress on a new deal and the agreement should be finished soon. Mattingly is under contract through the 2014 season. His contract option for the upcoming season was triggered when the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS.
However, during a gloriously awkward end-of-season press conference in October, the tensions between Mattingly and Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti were wholly apparent. The two sat on opposite ends of a table, and Mattingly had his arms folded defiantly. Body language experts surely had a great time interpreting how Mattingly and Colletti felt in that setting. If the working relationship was as chilly as it appeared, simply having conversations about a new contract could be seen as "making progress."
"Really what it does, it puts me in a spot where everything that I do is questioned," Mattingly said during that October presser. "Because I'm basically trying out or auditioning to say, 'Can he manage or can he not manage?' To me, it's at that point where, three years in, you either know or you don't."
Mattingly certainly had a point. No major league manager (other than perhaps the Angels' Mike Scioscia) came into the 2013 season under more pressure to succeed. The Dodgers had an opening day payroll of $217 million, second only to the Yankees among MLB teams. A blockbuster trade with the Red Sox added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to their lineup. Signing Zack Greinke as a free agent fortified what was already an impressive and deep starting rotation.
This team was loaded. The only thing that could seemingly prevent the Dodgers from qualifying for the postseason — and possibly winning the World Series — was their manager. Ownership and the front office gave Mattingly plenty of talent to work with (later including rookie sensation Yasiel Puig). All the skipper had to do was fulfill those massive expectations and not screw up what looked like a sure thing.
After the first two months of the season, it looked like Mattingly was indeed going to fall short. The Dodgers went 10-17 in May, leaving them with a 23-30 record and a 7.5-game deficit in the NL West. Speculation was that the Dodgers would keep Mattingly on through a two-game series at Yankee Stadium, let him take a bow in the city where he played 14 seasons, and then cut him loose.
However, that didn't happen. Even when the Dodgers fell 9.5 games behind in their division, Mattingly wasn't dismissed. Maybe Colletti and ownership could see that something was coming together, even if the team wasn't winning games. In late June, the Dodgers won six games in a row, eventually winning 10 of 11. The team had closed to within 2.5 games of the NL West lead.
The Dodgers went 19-6 in July and 23-6 in August. That success, coupled with the collapse of division foes like the Diamondbacks and Giants, resulted in a 10.5-game first-place lead at the beginning of September. The Dodgers soon extended that lead to a season-high 13 games. The question was no longer whether or not this team could make it to the postseason. Fans, analysts and commentators were wondering if the Dodgers were the best team in MLB.
Yet there was no contract extension for Mattingly. I suppose you can commend the Dodgers for being consistent and not being swayed by regular season success, no matter how impressive. See how Mattingly's team performed in the postseason first before making a decision on his future. Was it fair to Mattingly? Probably not. But sports is a results-based business, and the Dodgers were holding their manager to a high standard. If Mattingly met that standard, a new contract would surely follow.
The Dodgers never really had to make a decision, however. Getting to the NLCS triggered a vesting option for 2014, thus preventing the team from having to formally offer a contract extension to Mattingly. It was a cop-out, really. So you can see why Mattingly was still left unsatisfied by the end of the season. What more did he have to do? (Well, besides the obvious answer of winning the World Series.) And was the front office really going to let Mattingly go through 2014 wondering about his contract situation again?
It appears that the Dodgers don't want to go through next season with uncertainty in the dugout either. Or at the very least, the team doesn't want Mattingly's contract status to become the dreaded distraction (!!) that all sports teams prefer to avoid, lest such matters adversely affect results on the field and provide an excuse for failure.
We don't yet know just how much of a commitment the Dodgers are making to Mattingly. Maybe he'll only receive a contract through the 2015 season, enough for him to avoid the so-called lame duck status that could conceivably compromise his authority with players. That may be especially important in dealing with Puig, whose impulsiveness — on and off the field — and occasionally erratic play has presented a challenge for Mattingly. How he handles Puig could very well affect his perception in the Dodgers clubhouse. But if Mattingly has a contract in hand, he may feel more emboldened to bench Puig and others, if necessary.
But really, if the Dodgers again play below expectations and Mattingly loses the clubhouse, does anyone think ownership wouldn't sign off on firing Mattingly and eating whatever remains of his contract, regardless of its length and financial value? Having a big payroll and a willingness to pay top dollar doesn't just mean the Dodgers will offer outlandish contracts to players. That large budget also allows the team to cover — and recover — from mistakes and move on.
For now, however, a contract extension for Mattingly is the right decision for the Dodgers. Even if the team retains him solely because an obvious upgrade isn't available, that's good enough. John Farrell and Terry Francona showed that a new manager can make a significant difference for a playoff contender.
Yet there was no slam-dunk candidate to be hired this winter. Maybe the closest to that was Joe Girardi, but the Yankees made sure he was never an option for another team. Look at who filled the open gigs this offseason: Brad Ausmus, Matt Williams, Bryan Price, Rick Renteria and Lloyd McClendon.
At least the Dodgers know what they have in Mattingly. That may not be the most glowing endorsement, but Mattingly showed that he can turn a struggling team around during the season, shuffle the lineup to cover for injuries and handle loose cannons on the roster. Maybe the Dodgers will win simply because they have more talent than the competition. But Mattingly has earned the chance to show he should be in the dugout when that happens.